South Downs Way 50

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I’ve tried twice before to complete one of James Elson’s races and both finished with a colossal bonk two thirds of the way in and a DNF. Granted, both attempts were for the North Downs Way 100, where in 2015 I attempted the distance only three weeks after my qualifying 50 mile race – not a recommended time frame for doubling distance – and in 2016 where I didn’t even commit to doing it until the week before, let alone train. Ahem. Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate my approach.

So my challenge for 2017 is to take a step back and focus on a more manageable task, relatively speaking. Not to underplay the difficulty of the Centurion races, but as soon as I got home from deepest darkest Kent for the second time and dumped all the uneaten food out of my race vest I decided to sign up for the 50 Mile Grand Slam in 2017: four races across the year along the South Downs, North Downs, Chilterns and Wendover Woods with the promise of an extra bit of bling for finishing all four. If I can train for and normalise a 50 mile race, I might have half a chance of getting past Holly Hill.

Getting as far as the finish of the first race would however take a dramatic change in circumstances. My running routine had ground almost to a halt in 2016, and my work schedule had gone from crazy to totally insane. You can’t train for a 50 mile race by getting your knickers in a twist every time you miss a run, especially when you miss more runs than you make. So, for physical and mental reasons, I decided to restart my daily mile run streak. If I wasn’t going to get the volume of training required to finish the races I at least wanted consistency, and a change in priorities.

So, what could I do to prepare if I couldn’t do the mileage? A busy bit of scheduling at the beginning of the year meant that I was working every other weekend, not to mention many early mornings and evenings, so unfortunately social runs with the Chasers would be out. Loops around the common would have to be enough practice of off-road running, and occasionally doing flat out mile loops around home would take the place of speedwork. Other than that I slotted runs in wherever they fitted with the day’s work – running to and from the tube station usually. It’s only a couple of miles but when it has to be done with a heavy backpack – work clothes and shoes, laptop, lunch, stuff I forgot to take out – it makes for good strength training. And it’s more reliable than the bus.

I also restarted my running diary, which made a lot more sense when there was something to write in it every day, to track my progress on both fronts and keep a count of my weekly mileage. Lining up a few marathons to get back into the rhythm of racing really helped give me something to look forward too as well, not to mention the fact that bought and paid for races were harder to justify missing when weekend work popped up. My fourth attempt at the Moonlight Challenge finally saw me finishing the fifth lap, and the confidence boost that gave me became a massive turning point in my training. If I can get that far I can hike the rest.

Two things drove me to the end of the race. One was the experience of finishing the distance – although that’s a double edged sword, because it brings a calculable standard and the temptation to beat it – and the other was my overall goal to finish the grand slam. When running one race the definition of failure is quitting one race; when running a series the definition of failure in any one is failure of all of them. From one perspective that’s added pressure, but from another it’s the removal of the possibility of voluntary DNF. That’s the mindset I took with me to the start line at Worthing, anyway.

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The weather forecast was good. Let me rephrase: the weather forecast was good for sun worshippers, less so for ultra runners and ducks. Not for the first time I let my Mediterranean bombast get the better of me and refused the many offers of sun cream; I would pay for that decision later with peeling earlobes and sore shoulders. It was a comforting, homely warmth when we set off at nine in the morning; it was dehydration so bad my palms had stopped sweating by the time I even reached mile 15. Everything stopped sweating. But at the start of the race there was only hope, and the liberating feeling of carrying the barest minimum of items that will keep you alive for the next 50 miles. You know, like melty Snickers bars and a map I won’t use and two head torches on the sunniest day of the year and a lucky (HA HA) QPR cap.

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The first aid station is just over 11 miles in, which should feel like a long old way to go without support but really doesn’t. I mean, you can spend a lot of time on the South Downs before getting tired of the scenery, and it helped that I was joined by good company too; in particular two runners from local clubs who knew the terrain and the area well, and spoke of it like someone in love. Perhaps the company was slightly too good; in all my chatting I hadn’t noticed how little I’d drunk of my litre of water, and quite contrary to my plans hadn’t emptied my bottles by the time we reached Botolphs. I had to scull them dry as we reached the aid station to justify refilling them. The sky was clear and cloudless, the air unmoving. The South Downs is, unlike the North Downs I’d spent so much time on, incredibly exposed. There is no tree cover to shield you from rain or rays. You take the rough with the smooth.

Shortly after the first aid station I fell in step with a wine master who had trained nearby and we spent a lot of time looking out for his college on the way to Saddlescombe. He reminded me of my friend Chris; chronologically the youngest in our group of hooligans but who, being more interested in the world than anyone I know, taught us how to identify Bordeaux by the vineyard and classify fish by most appropriate accompaniments, while delivering a history lesson to people almost twice his age. The wine master – also called Chris, also with excellent hair – had trained at Plumpton after deciding to trade his career in hospitality for a less lucrative but more sociable one in the wine trade, and ultrarunning was simply an extension of improving his quality of life. After staying the night before in my sister-in-law’s Art Deco seafront apartment in Brighton, drinking in the sea breeze with my bottle of locally brewed porter, I got the impression that people in Sussex know how to live a good life. It’s the sort of life I could get used to.

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Chris and I had been running at a comfortable pace that would have got us in around the ten hour mark and were hoping to sustain it until at least thirty miles in before stopping for a proper rest. A great plan, which got less great as the sun burned brighter, my water bottles got drier and my feet heavier. Eventually I had to slow down and let him go, knowing that trying to hurry to the next station was counter-productive; I might save a few minutes but kill myself in the effort. Get-there-itis had fucked me over enough times before, and if I was going to learn any lessons from past experience it had to be not to panic. Nevertheless, by the time I reached the halfway checkpoint at Housedean the heat was really taking its toll, and not just on me. Despite advice to the contrary I took a seat in the cool darkness of the barn and watched as runner after runner came in but very few left. Dehydration had knocked me sideways and I didn’t want to leave until it was under control.

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OK, systems check. Muscles, fine actually. No pain, no soreness (thank you Altras), no blisters, not really tired even. I had the pre-sunburn feeling of warmth under my skin but otherwise no mechanical issues. Internally was a different story. Head, swimming. Stomach, not having any of it. Even the thought of food made me want to throw up and I still wasn’t ready to confront that possibility. Mouth, dry as an ashtray. Tailwind, gone. I took my time sipping a couple of cups of water before refilling both my bottles and nibbled pathetically on some fruit and a couple of cookies. When I set off on the road again the reusable cup in my mandatory kit turned out to be a bit of a lifesaver – my problem so far had mostly been to do with forgetting to drink when I needed it and holding an open cup in my hand was a good reminder to my gluey brain to keep sipping away. With that in one hand and some Marylands melting in the other I trudged away up the next climb.

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All day I had been looking forward to the Southease aid station at mile 33: partly because it was a pleasing number, partly because I had promised myself I could call Andy there, and partly because it was the point where I had met Cat during her run in 2015 and I fell in love with the spot immediately. At the crossroads between the South Downs Way and the Ouse Valley Way, the YHA at Southease offers an adorable tearoom nestled between rolling hills in one direction and winding river in the other, and it’s a real travellers’ treat. It was my reward for sticking out the tough part. The break I had taken at Housedean made all the difference to my hydration, the midday haze was burning away as we approached late afternoon and I even managed to pee (I know, the glamour of ultrarunning). Still though, I couldn’t quite improve on mousey nibbles of food that weren’t giving me any significant calorific value. A few miles on I felt the wall looming again; it took a lot of will to overcome my gag reflex and force down a gel. But it kept me going. Who knew.

Knowing that there was a tricky bit of navigation around the Alfriston and Jevington aid stations I devoted my energies to staying on track and tried to take my mind off my churning stomach. The navigation function on my Suunto was a great peace of mind when I had no familiarity with the area – not that you can get lost for lack of signs because they’re bloody everywhere, but because the panic that sets in when you haven’t seen one for a few minutes is more likely to make you doubt your course and make stupid decisions – so I concentrated on that little arrow and almost nothing else.

By the time I reached the church at Alfriston low blood sugar had scrambled my mind as well as my belly; I lurched towards the volunteers panicking about the cutoffs, refusing to refill my water bottle or eat until they reassured me I was well within it. Of course, I’d confused the 13 hour finishing time limit with my own 11 hour target and got myself in a tizz over nothing. It was a bit of a wake up call, and I took another systems check on myself. Not good. Whatever was in my body wanted to leave it, one way or the other – the next minutes minutes was spent either hugging the toilet or pushing pieces of crisps into my mouth even though I’d forgotten how to chew. But once again that twenty minutes in the cool shelter of the church was worth so much more than the time I’d have saved if I hadn’t stopped. I didn’t exactly leave good as new, but I recovered enough to alternate between jogging until my stomach complained and hiking until my watch did.

Eventually my watch complained too much and the battery gave out just as I reached the final station at Jevington. Running the navigation function all day drained it much faster than the standard settings, and the one section I really needed the navigation for was the final stretch where there were no longer any SDW waymarks. But, I reasoned, I knew that there was only around four and a half miles left which should take about an hour, and James’ team hadn’t exactly skimped on the signage – I couldn’t go far wrong as long as I paid attention. I grabbed a handful of jelly babies and trotted off. The end was so close now. Always forward.

The final stretch into Eastbourne town centre was, as you’d expect, a lot of painful hard ground after spending so much time on the relative comfort of of South Downs chalk. I just kept visualising the circuit of the running track that would make up the final 400 metres of the 50 mile race; just as I had so many times before, I imagined powering round it as if it was the 10,000m final of the Olympics. Before I knew it I was right there, running like I’d forgotten the distance that was behind me, lifting my chin and raising my knees, pushing forward on and on until I got to the final bend. And then, I fucking went for it.

Jumping over the line with a war-cry earned me some funny looks, a handshake from James Elson and a medal from Mimi Anderson, but my biggest reward was the confidence that I now knew how to beat the bonk. I had gone to a bad place and I had come back out of it with patience, determination and a good talking to. Not with kit choices, nor salt pills or magic bullets – just willpower. The decision to finish and finish strong was mine, just as the decision to quit had been too.

Less than five hours’ sleep before I left for work at 5:45 the following morning for an onsite rig day – it’s the part of my job that usually kills me but that day I had a spring in my step and some hilarious dodgy tan lines from running in one direction all day, and I almost couldn’t wait to get to work. That one race gave me belief, gave me back my control, gave me a huge chunk of my life back. And it would only be a month until the next one.

Can’t

Fucking

Wait.

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Moonlight Challenge – fourth time’s the charm

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You can look at endurance sports in one of two ways:

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.”

“The definition of insanity is to repeat the same action and expect a different outcome.”

I mean, I’ve had a QPR season ticket for the last 8 years, so perhaps a bent for hopeless endurance sports was inevitable.

Here I am then on my fourth outing at the Moonlight Challenge aiming for the elusive fifth lap. Regular readers will remember attempt number one, where I foolishly aimed to nab my first ultra marathon finish on only my second ever long distance race and ended up humbled by the mud; attempt two where I basically chickened out; when number three was stymied by a knee injury I knew I would be back again this year.

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I would be, but two very important people would not. Wendimum, who had been such a regular supporter at Challenge Hub races that she probably qualified for a green number, had moved to The North where the weather comes from; and Mike Inkster, godfather of daft races, had finally handed the Challenge Hub reins over to Traviss and Rachel of Saxons Vikings Normans. The three challenges would now form part of their incredibly prolific portfolio of races, and all I’d heard about SVN was glowing reports. I mean, seriously-are-they-bribing-you glowing reports. Generous goody bags, medals so big and ornate you could pave a driveway with them, cake and beer a staple of every race. I was curious to see if they would do this historic event justice or if the spirit of the Challenge Hub races would simply be lost for ever.

Being Kent-based, the regular faces at SVN were many of the same ones that I knew from Challenge Hub and So Let’s Go Running, so it wasn’t totally unfamiliar ground. What became very clear very quickly was that although I was one of a handful of regulars the new RDs would bring a huge field to this relatively tiny race, with many 100 Marathon Club members and wannabes keen to try a rare “new” course. What was also clear is that nobody ever does just one SVN race. This is a community built around the idea that a) literally anyone can finish a marathon – which is true – and b) one marathon is never enough, and nor is a hundred. It’s like the Challenge Hub ethos on acid.

There were a few tweaks to the race, which loyalty insisted I should HATE but practicality forced me to appreciate. Change number one was that the race would start at 4pm, not 6pm, and more importantly that it would be moved forward by 4 weeks so that it fell on the somewhat milder March full moon night, not a bitterly cold and foggy February one. Change number two was the format; instead of a multi-lap race with a limit of five, it would now be an eight-hour race with complete laps counted towards the total, as many as you could finish so long as the final one started before 10:30pm. I hadn’t any other reason to be optimistic about the race given my appalling preparation and my extra stone in weight, but I did cling to the little luxuries these changes afforded.

The biggest luxury, especially given that Wendimum wouldn’t be there, was to have Andy crewing for me. Let’s be clear; Andy is not a runner. He does not find running as exciting as I do. He certainly does not consider the idea of sitting in a barn on a cold Saturday night, with no wi-fi or electricity, for eight full hours sandwiched by a two hour drive there and back, fun. I had to put on my most pathetic face to persuade him to do it. If I was to have any chance of nabbing the fifth lap I would need not to be worrying about driving home on tired legs or finding my food and drinks at each pitstop. At least we found a huge John Deere tractor to use as a base, and Andy got his fill of machinery porn for the day as we set up our camping chairs in front of it.

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Mooching about the start and half-heartedly stretching, I caught snippets of overheard conversations. The usual run-geekery and gossip, then I heard the word “elevation”. Three very serious looking chaps were discussing whether it counted as basically flat or the fact that the bridge over the motorway, which you cross twice per lap, cumulatively contributed to a lot of climbing. I held my tongue, but it was tough. I wanted desperately to jump in and tell them, elevation is not the challenge on this race. There are humps, but if you look back at your Strava when you finish the profile will look flat as a pancake. There’s a bit of mud, but any relatively experienced runner will be well prepared for that – and anyway, everyone here seemed to be wearing Hoka Stinsons and you can’t really be sure where the foot begins and the lugs end with those things. The repetitive nature of the laps aren’t anywhere near as bad a you’d think either; actually I’ve grown to love the rhythmic nature and comforting familiarity of lap format races. No, the challenge is far more insidious than that.

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Judging the flatness of this race is like measuring fractals. Is that flat ground? Sure. No, wait, look closer. Is that a rut? Try again. A rut IN a rut? Getting warmer. This is a farm on the coast, my friend. That’s right – the ground for at least half of each lap has been rained on, churned, dried out, flooded, churned again, dried again, over and over until there isn’t a square foot that isn’t made up of peaks and troughs which are in turn made up of smaller peaks and troughs that redefine infinity. Good luck finding somewhere to land your feet. I’m guessing this is why the race always used to be run in the rainy season.

No time to worry about it now though. Part of my tactics for persuading Andy to come with me was to promise that we could listen to the QPR game on the radio – that turned out to be an optimistic gamble as pointless run-up coverage of the pointless Six F**king Nations filled the airwaves so I left him to grind his teeth in peace while I checked the first section of terrain. I was wearing my comfy zero-drop Altras in the car intending to change into my Salomon Fellraisers for the race itself, but the ground was much harder tham normal and the Fellraisers’ lugs would have shredded my feet looking for mud to bite into. Not having trained much in the zero-drop shoes was presumably an Achilles disaster waiting to happen, but I didn’t have much choice.

On the plus side, Mike made an appearance after all – dressed for once in smart clothes and boots instead of running shoes and jungle shorts, he had a cameo appearance as the race starter. I was so pleased to see him I nearly knocked him over with my hug. An auspicious start, but unless you’ve run a cumulative 200 miles (or more) around one of his fiendishly difficult courses you can’t appreciate the love I have for Mike, who has become the godfather of ultrarunning to me. That’s Stockholm Syndrome, isn’t it? Either way, another good omen for the race ahead.

There wasn’t the usual rocket going off for the start (“the man who was meant to bring it forgot”) but there we were, pretty much bang on 4pm, set loose on the trails of two of Kent’s muddiest coastal farms. The loop is made of (as Traviss perfectly described it) a dumbbell, where one loop is on Brook Farm, the furthest point of which is also the start/finish, the other is Bell Isle Farm, and the crossover is the bridge over the A299. Brook Farm is definitely the marshier of the two and includes the tricky little ridge of holy-crap-what-IS-that-we’re-running-on, which I am informed is only 400 metres long but can assure you is closer to about twenty miles. It’s ankle-turning central round there, and there are no prizes for finishing it first. So, although I held off walking until the fourth lap, I did take that section at a trot rather than a canter.

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The first lap went smoothly, a good opportunity for regulars to reacquaint themselves with the route in the light and for newbies to learn it, for although it’s signposted Brook Farm in particular has a fair few turns that are easy to get wrong. By the second I was a little bored of being a Focused Runner, and tried to chat to a couple of people, and by a happy coincidence bumped into Jimi Hendricks (real name) from the Rebel Runners. I had run this same race with Jimi and Paula for a fair chunk last year, when both were on their third or fourth ever marathon. In the intervening year Jimi, with the help of SVN, had become a marathon running machine and had completed something like 70 more, well on his way to the 100. These are people who absolutely share my ethos for running, and the more I spoke to Jimi the more I learned about the work that SVN do effectively operating their running community as a feeder system for the 100 Marathon Club.

The belief that anyone can finish a marathon or ultra and in fact all those people can easily go on to finish a thousand more if they want to is underpinned by the practice of stripping back the things in races you probably don’t need (chip timing, baggage pens, disco music and coordinated warmups) and focusing instead on the things you do need (logistical support, sense of humour, a fuck ton of food and a pint of beer at the end). By running many of their races as timed events rather than distance ones, the stress of hitting cutoffs or getting drop bags to the right place is eliminated immediately. Of 91 finishers, 22 completed 5 or more laps in the allotted time to bag themselves an ultra (including one man, Alix Ramsier, who made it to 52.8 miles to take the longest distance by a full 2 laps); a further 49 completed a marathon. And the other 20? They all got their finishing time, their medal and their goody bag too. No DNFs, no timeouts. I’ve been listening to the Ultra Runner Podcast obsessively and host Eric Schranz raised this point just recently – if you’re running your first ultra, a fixed time event as opposed to a fixed distance one is definitely the way to go. I’ve got to hand it to SVN, they’ve got this COVERED.

Back to the race. Among the marathon finishers are two people without whom I’m not sure I’d have finished, certainly not with a smile on my face anyway. Simon Lewis and I did a little dance of face-in-a-strange-place “Do I know you?” until we worked out that no, we had not met at previous Challenge Hub Races, no, there was no Kent connection; Simon is in fact another Clapham Chaser and co-Event Director of Tooting Common parkrun. How we found each other all the way out here…  I knew Simon’s face and I knew his name from the weekly club results roundup, but I’d never put the two together before. I’d also never realised there was another Chaser who subscribed to the more is more ethos for race finishes, and who was also well on the way to the 100 Club shirt. We ran half of the second lap together, just as the sun packed itself off to bed, playing chicken with our headtorches. Simon’s finish got him to marathon number 72 and his goal – which I have no doubt he will smash – is to hit the hundred before the end of December. I felt like I was in good company.

About halfway through the third lap, after I’d steamed ahead of Simon with a rare and foolhardy burst of energy, I realised I was back to running a boring loop on my own again and there weren’t even any views to enjoy. Well, there’s the sodium glare of the A299, but it’s hardly anything to write home about. And just as I started grumbling away to myself I came across another lone runner similarly wondering why the hell we were staring at a main road. Claire turned out to be more excellent company for what was becoming the slog part of the race. A lifelong film buff, she remains the first person I’ve ever met who does now for a living what she wanted to do when she was a little girl: a graphic designer that makes film posters. We chatted easily for a lap and a half, a good eleven miles that I barely noticed passing.  In that irreverent way that you do when you meet someone you click with, we discussed GI issues on the run, favourite ways to fuel (both having recently dicovered Tailwind), why do romcom posters always have black and red Arial font on a white background, and Kiera Knightley. It turned out that she’d read my blog before (poor woman) and we shared URLs before we parted at the end of lap four.

I was genuinely gutted to lose Claire for the final lap but she had already pretty much made my race. She forced me to slow a little and walk the occasional inclines, which I’m usually loathe to do but always always regret later on, and I’m positive that that gave me the energy to make it through the final lap. Before I started Andy and I did a little mental calculation and worked out that by giving it a bit of welly I could actually be done with this lap in about hour and a quarter and make the six and a half hour watershed for starting the last one, but it would be a bit stupid to rush and risk injury. Plus, Andy really did not want to be there for another hour and a half. No, I would learn the lessons that Claire had taught me and take it easy for this lap. And since I’d be on my own I put my headphones in for the first time to listen to an interview with my hard-work hero, Jamie Mackie, on the QPR podcast. And off I went.

The zero-drop shoes were, surprisingly, a dream. Given the hardness of the ground and the lack 0f practice running in them I really expected to crash out with an Achilles nightmare (2016 had been that sort of year) but my calves, knees and feet were absolutely fine. I mean, slightly sore in the way that legs that have run a marathon tend to be, but not the sort of sore that actually stops you; in fact I felt as strong as I had in the second lap. Perhaps Altra are onto something here – why the hell are they so hard to find in the UK? I did a bit of shoegazing and saw a ton of Hokas, some Salomons, the occasional Inov-8 (I tried some of those again last week and they’re definitely dolls’ shoes, not made for duck feet like mine) but definitely no other Altras.

The Focused Runner approach actually seemed to be working for me and I kept a steady and not disrespectable pace up for three quarters of the lap before I became conscious of myself ramping up. Then I came across the windmill which marks the final straight, about half a mile of road which goes a bit up and then lots down, and I bloody went for it. The balls of my feet burned, my glutes started firing, my arms pumping as if I was on the Mall at the end of the London Marathon. It hurt, but it hurt good. A hop and a skip through the open barn door and I rang the bell to say I was done – 9 seconds after the final lap cutoff. Worth it. And the goody bag was, true to form, unspeakably good…

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Andy had to concede it wasn’t the worst time he’d ever had, and I think he finally understood what I see in this daft sport when he met the other characters that make it what it is. For my part I don’t think I’ve ever finished a race that strongly, and it gave me a huge boost for the Centurion 50 Mile Grand Slam – something which, with the first race only four weeks away, I was terrified about. After a dismal year of injury upon exhaustion on top of weight gain added to laziness this race really hit my reset buttons  – and obviously the first thing I did when I got home was sign up for the first random SVN race that wasn’t aleady sold out (August). Traviss and Rachel have done a fantastic job of keeping the Challenge Hub spirit alive and I’m sure Mike is relieved to know his races are in good hands. Me, I’m just glad to have my mojo back. God I’ve missed this.

Ask me again in four weeks.

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Woldingham to Wimbledon

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Last year was a great year of running for me. I maintained a daily mile streak, and at least one official marathon each calendar month (16 in total). PBs fell all over the shop, and every time I did better than I thought it gave me the confidence to try harder. This year, not so much. It was bound to be a slightly fallow year in comparison, but (to continue the agricultural metaphor) whereas grass can still grow through paving stones running results don’t happen without actually running. And running has really not happened.

As I lined up for my second attempt at the North Downs 100 in August, having been unable to run a number of training races I was hoping to because of work commitments, I realised that I hadn’t finished an official marathon or even added a medal of any kind to my collection since London in April. Not that that’s such a long time between races, but for someone used to being the Mr T of running medals it gnawed at me. As it turned out, the North Downs Way 100 didn’t result in an official finish either so I headed towards the end of August feeling slightly less fabulous than I’d like to, not to mention heavier and less graceful than ever, and I missed the trail miles. So, I scanned teh interwebs for something nearby, low key, muddy and fun, and found the inaugural Woldingham Marathon. In three days’ time.

The route is a two lap loop which covers a couple of hills from the North Downs Way, and helpfully diverts to the one massive hill on the Vanguard Way where the two bisect in the middle too, before looping back to the start/finish in Woldingham School. The diversion up Oxted Downs is really only there to make up miles and offer physical and psychological torture, since all you do when you get to the top is go straight back down again and carry on along the rest of the route (also uphill), and this particularly simplistic brand of sadism is half the fun. Plus, it means the route is shaped kind of like a bum, cleft and all, and who doesn’t like tracing rude pictures with their runs?

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It was exactly what I needed. I arrived at the school vaguely entertaining ideas of a four and a half hour finish, then recognised the area, and quickly downshifted my expectations through five hours, five and a half hours and not looking at the time at all. And then I bumped into fellow Chaser Alex Visram who, in preparation for the Ultra Trail Mount Fuji (the Japanese UTMB, so even madder) had signed up for what he delicately called a “training run”. We bought on the day entries, drank coffee and caught up with a few familiar faces, then fifty or so runners (and one dog) doing either the one-lap half marathon or the two-lap full took off with the bang of the starters pistol (an unexpected bonus to the organisers who seemed as surprised as we did to hear it).

Alex and I started off together but it became painfully obvious that he was running well within his easy pace. He was kind enough to keep me company for a good half lap though, including up to the top of Oxted Downs and back down again, coaching me through my recent running woes all the way. Alex is one of the Clapham Chasers’ ultra kings and full of good advice on how to get through a race, although as one might expect from a seasoned ultrarunner his advice is pretty no-nonsense. I told him about my issues with nausea and fear of sickness through the North Downs 100, and his response didn’t pull any punches. “Jaz, if you want to run 100 miles somewhere along the way you have to accept that being sick is part of it. You can’t be put off by stuff like that. It’s like saying you don’t want to run long distances because you’re afraid of getting blisters.” It was sort of brutal and sort of liberating at the same time, hearing that. It reinforced a perspective that I viewed for the first time just a few weeks before – my ability to finish a 100 miler is a matter of choice. Either I want it enough that I’ll get over the unpleasant details, or I don’t want it enough. That’s all there is to it.

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As we neared Titsey Hill he spied a regular rival a few paces ahead, and decided that as he wasn’t going for the win today he at least wanted to finish ahead of this guy, and off he went – zoom. There was actual dust at his heels, and this was a rainy day. This same stretch had been torture to me just three weekends before, an exposed plain by the side of the M25 with a singletrack barely wide enough for two feet, which under the height of summer sun seems to take forever to cover. Today it was a totally different story – refreshing, slightly treacherous but in a fun way, a flat stretch providing temporary relief from the climb-them-don’t-walk-them hills. As I made my way into the clearing by the Titsey Plantation I fell into step with a gentleman who was no more eager to run uphill than me, and we chatted to distract ourselves from the task.

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Geoff – a colourblind surgeon, and veteran runner who was preparing for his first ultra in September after having run his first marathon in 1981 – was a fascinating companion, and we were well on our way back to the start/finish point before I noticed how much time had passed. It felt quite a lot like a social trail run, rather than a race; at least, I was treating it that way. I needed to rediscover the love of running itself, and dissociate the fear of failure from the act of the exercise. Focusing on the more social part of the activity sort of hit my reset button.

We talked at length about his career as a reconstructive surgeon, and I asked all manner of daft questions:
“Does being colourblind affect your work, when you’re doing intricate things like veins and arteries?”
“Well no, arteries and veins are different sizes anyway…” *looks at me as if I’m retarded* “What’s the worst job you ever had to do?”
“Skin grafts on burned children.” *awkward silence*
As time passed we realised each of us were dragging the other person along by turns, and that overall we were pretty much bob on the same pace, so as we climbed Titsey Hill the second time we agreed to finish together come what may.

As we passed the water station the final time with three miles to go, the volunteers told me I was currently fourth lady. It was the first time I’d really considered our positions in the context of the race. Gentleman Geoff urged me to push on, but since there wasn’t anyone behind us for miles and (I reasoned) there were probably only five women in the race anyway I preferred to stick with the plan to finish together hand in hand, and that’s exactly what we did. A watershed moment in the year that running forgot, I bagged a medal, a friend and a race that I enjoyed all the way through. I just can’t get bored of tootling around the Surrey hills and chatting and eating biscuits – and the silly thing is, I already know that abstract achievements like this drive me more than calculable results ever have. Not to mention ticking off another marathon on the list to 100; another huge moment, considering the last time I’d officially done that was April. I’d started to wrestle back control.

So Woldingham was almost as impulsive a marathon as it’s possible to get, but it was absolutely worth it. On the other hand, the Suunto Run Wimbledon marathon had been on the cards since July when I was drawn in by a Facebook advert for the inaugural race. The race was four squiggly laps around the common, offering 10k, half marathon, solo marathon and relay marathon options. Nearby and low-key, mostly offroad (I assumed), sponsored by my favourite brand of running watch, something about free marshmallows. Yep, sign me up.

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It would also be a good opportunity to get out the headtorch; the race was due to start at 4pm on the Saturday meaning that the second half would be run after dusk, under cover of trees which blocked out what little moonlight broke through the clouds, in effectively pitch darkness. I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to running on little or no sleep but I do love a race in the dark, especially one that starts late and necessitates an afternoon nap. And that’s pretty much all I knew about it until the Wednesday before. Once again, my failure to do race research would define my experience.

As I warmed up in the start/finish area in a clearing near the Windmill, I bumped into another Chaser trail regular Igor, who was returning to running with a stab at the half marathon after a busy year creating new human beings. Sticking with the theme of “this is a social run with a medal, not a race” we covered the first two laps together in a comfortable but not easy 2:05, chatting the whole way through about life, the universe and everything. As someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, moved to the US and there became a citizen before settling in the UK, Igor is a fascinating person to talk to/interrogate with daft questions; we covered Brexit, global economics, parenthood, the two hour marathon, America optimism vs Russian cynicism and why Turkish people are so charmingly blunt, all with the help of natural daylight. After the second lap I waved Igor on his way, downed a gel and set up my torch for the remainder of the race, as dusk was threatening to descend at a moment’s notice. And then I realised I needed the loo.

As if someone had switched the lights off we were plunged into darkness for lap three, apart from the half mile or so around the A3 subway lit by sodium lamps (frankly, I preferred the darkness) and it became more important than ever to watch where my feet were going. Igor and I had both had a couple of near misses even when the light was good, so there was no need for heroics; then again, the pressure was growing in my bladder with at least an hour to the next possible loo stop so I didn’t exactly want to dawdle. Being a lap race it was difficult to tell where in the field I was (although I assumed it must be a way towards the back) and the 10k and half marathon runners were mostly finished by this point. With the exception of a girl from the 100 Marathon Club who I caught up with a couple of times then gave up trying to follow, I found myself basically on my own.

When I got to the end of lap three I was flagging a little, having pretty much run 20 miles on one gel, and I passed the timing mat around 3:20. Not great, but not a disaster. I pulled over to ask one of the marshals if I could use the loo without being disqualified and she stared at me with horror. While I wondered if I’d broken some sort of running etiquette by asking to use the loo, she composed herself enough to ask if I had another lap to go.

“Yeah, this is my third. One more to go.”
“Well… you can use the loo, but the cutoff is four hours. Are you going to be finished by then?”

It took me a moment to a) process that she was asking if I’d finish the RACE within four hours not the toilet trip and b) that she was asking if I would finish a 6.5 mile lap, in the dark, in the woods, in under 40 mins. I admitted that I would not. “So, will I be allowed to finish?”

She had to go and find the race director to get confirmation that I’d be allowed to continue while I waited for an agonising 5 minutes, during which I was even too afraid to leave the timing area for the loo in case I’d missed another crucial rule. How did I miss that the cutoff for the race was 4 hours? I definitely didn’t remember seeing it before I’d signed up, as even Optimistic Jaz wouldn’t be that reckless, and I racked my memory for a clue in the race day instructions I’d read before coming out. I remembered (and a little bit ignored) the headphones rule, I remembered deciphering the squiggly map, I remembered that there was no food or gel on offer but that there would be water… then I vaguely remembered a comment about being done in 8 hours so the organisers could go to the pub and thinking how generous that was. Bit of mental arithmetic followed: 4pm plus 8 hours does not equal being able to go to the pub. In retrospect, I reasoned, perhaps the rule was actually “finish by 8pm”. Ah.

Eventually I got a reassurance that I could continue and officially finish, but there would be no medical assistance and no marshals. Not a problem to me, a seasoned night-time runner and part-time Womble, but it got me to thinking how you could expect the last finisher to finish within four hours; and moreover why wouldn’t you advertise that more before you even take anyone’s money? Four hours is pretty punchy for an off-road marathon, half of which is in the dark; although arguably only by today’s standards. I thought about veteran Chaser Rob who started running marathons in the early 80s when he admitted to often coming plum last despite finishing in under three and a half hours. I didn’t really have the right to get angry at the organisers, I told myself, when I hadn’t even read the instructions properly. I even considered pulling out halfway through the final lap so as not to make anyone hang around too long, but eventually decided the best I could do would be to finish what I’d started.

Dragging myself through the inevitable 20 mile crash (one Gu gel and three Shot Bloks in, I now realise it was also the least well fuelled marathon I’d ever run) I tried to push as hard as my legs would allow while still maintaining some control. I switched from audiobook to upbeat ska punk (thank God for the staple Less Than Jake playlist) and ploughed on, with absolutely no other runners, no marshals, no people at all in sight. Even if I didn’t officially finish and get my bling, it would be important to me to overcome my doubts and finish, to prove to that negative voice in my head that it didn’t rule me. I skipped along to the blaring music through the eastern edge of the common, over ground that forms part of the Wimbledon parkrun lap, enjoying the familiarity and pretending it was a summer Saturday morning. And then everything was suddenly black and silence.

Where am I? You’re face down in the soil on Wimbledon Common.
Why do my hands hurt? Uh, you Supermanned it. Covered a good 6 feet gliding along the floor. Probably.
How? A tree root, I imagine. What else? Dickhead.
Holy fuck why can’t I hear anything am I deaf- No, you’re not. You landed on your iPod shuffle and paused it. Also you bruised your hip landing on the iPod. But check the iPod first.
My knees are screaming they’re going to fall off. No, they’re not. But they’re pretty bruised too.

I picked myself up and tested the weight on my fragile joints; adrenalin coursed through me so I couldn’t really feel what was damaged and what wasn’t, and that seemed like good enough reason to coast on it while it lasted, so I restarted my music and carried on running. My right hand in particular was pretty badly cut – two gouges caused by hitting a piece of branch on the floor had been stuffed with soil from the momentum of my fall, and nothing I could do would get it out. There wasn’t any help except at the end, so the end was where I needed to get. I laughed at myself remembering the last fall I’d had was another Superman slide along Wimbledon Common, a quarter of a mile up the trail, running the Wimbledon Half Marathon earlier this year. I’m nothing if not consistent.

The adrenalin did its thing – I ploughed on at something slightly faster than walking pace, crossed the finish line to a one-man reception who handed me my medal (yay!), my marshmallows (double yay!) and a sympathetic smile. I thanked him and asked if there were many more people to come. “No dear. Just you.” And that was how I got my first ever last finisher. All those times I freaked out about being the last person on the course when I first started running in 2012; I couldn’t help but giggle. Having done it, it was actually sort of liberating.

When Chasers’ results guru Graham Sutherland posted up his weekly roundup on Monday evening it was the first time I’d even considered my race position (except for being, you know, DEAD LAST), so I was pretty surprised to discover that I was aso technically second lady. That’s right – the 100 Marathon Club girl that I had been trying to keep up with was the only other girl doing the full marathon. This lofty accolade was confirmed a couple of weeks later when I went to the Post Office to pick up what I thought was a parcel of bedding, and discovered instead an amazing 25l running backpack/drybag and a handful of Buffs as my second lady prize. I’ve never got a podium position before either, so getting both that and the wooden spoon in the same race deserves a prize of its own, I think. And I suppose, in finally regaining my sense of humour, I did. Which is the best possible prize I could have picked up.

On reflection, I got to the end of 2015 feeling a little tired but overall pretty fit, and like a much better person than I used to be; not so many temper tantrums or panic attacks, with a more positive perspective in general. The new job and the tiredness (and the partner increasingly worried that I’d joined some sort of exercise cult) persuaded me that I needed to dial back a little and recharge this year, whereupon the first thing that happened was a classic overuse injury, my first ever. Was this the delayed effect of last year’s exertions or was it because I’d stopped doing daily exercise that had previously helped ward off niggles and promoted faster recovery? In February, I’d have been easily persuaded that it was the former; now, the latter seems unquestionably true, especially corroborated by other daily run streak runners I know. Because it’s what I want to believe. I want to believe that running a mile or more every day and a marathon every month is good for me physically, because psychologically it turned my life around. That part isn’t in question at all for me, as anyone who knows me knows what a grumpy cow I’ve been this year. Running every day makes me happy. Or at least, it makes me hate the world and everyone in it marginally less.

On a slightly more sophisticated level, I have to acknowledge that happiness also comes from a sense of achievement where success is measured against expectation. All year I’ve had my expectations set somewhere between where they were last November when I was in much better shape, and the moon; no wonder that I was struggling to reach any of the targets I’d set and have been consequently feeling deflated. In my mind I was prepared or the fact that this year would be a bit of a plateau and hadn’t planned to go for any big goals or expect the leaps and strides I had last year – treating the whole year more like a rest and recovery period, I suppose – but in my heart I was still persuading myself that I should go for a 3:35 marathon and finish a 103 mile trail race on a month of no rest. A perfect recipe for unhappiness.

So how do I get happy? Trusting in my year out, making the rest and recovery work for me not the other way round, making decisions by looking at what I want to achieve not from FOMO are all good starts. The sense of humour, that’s the clincher. This shit is meant to be FUN. In the spirit of which (don’t laugh) I’ve decided to focus on the Centurion 50 milers next year before even considering upgrading to a 100 again – although, because I’m a borderline compulsive, I’m going for the four race grand slam (obviously) – and I’ve asked for help this time too. My early New Year’s Resolution will simply be to give myself a realistic target and trust in the awesome support network that the Chasers offers. After “eat more cake” that’s about as easy a resolution to keep as there is.

I mean, I love running. We all do. Otherwise, what the hell are we doing here?

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North Downs Way 100 2016

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Apparently when I was about 4 years old I wanted to be a midwife. I have no recollection of this; I have many vivid memories of early childhood but my ambitions to help bring more humans into the world is both at odds with my temperament and completely missing from my memory bank. Still, Wendimum insists it was true, inspired to some extent by the arrival of my little sister. What I do remember, quite clearly, is realising my limited capacity for human compassion when a few years later Leyla, Dad and I were watching a film on TV with a scene where a man driving with his dog in a beautiful classic car go off the edge of a cliff. My sister cried for “the poor man!” I only had sympathy for the dog and my dad shed actual tears for the wasteful loss of an original MG Roadster. Welcome to our family.

Things I definitely have wanted to be include Jayne Torvill (I was the absolute nuts at ice skating until we moved to a country that couldn’t power a household freezer let alone a rink), a crime scene investigator, Rainbow Brite, a soldier, a jazz singer, a comedian, and the skateboarding kid from The Crow. Then half a year before my 30th birthday I discovered that I wanted to be an ultrarunner, and that was that. I wanted to run the Western States 100 miler, and I’d work up to it while on the way to my hundredth marathon. I’d just keep running as many ultras as I could by way of training and eventually either have my name pulled from the hat or beg them until they got bored of me. Around 1am on Sunday 7th August 2016, I gave up on that ambition. I admitted to myself that hundred milers were probably not for me, and it felt kind of liberating.

Never say never and all – if I die without ever finishing a hundred miler I will die with regrets – but as pacer Katherine and I trudged through the woods to Holly Hill, barely scraping inside the cut off, I actually stopped wanting to finish the race. My desire to curl up in a foetal position, to stop the nausea pounding through my head, massively outweighed the pride I knew I’d feel if I got to the end or the frustration if I didn’t. Déjà vu – same point that I quit last year, same issues with eating and hydration, same relentless sun beating down all day. Spoiler alert – I surrendered.

I didn’t start off so negatively – in fact, despite my lack of training and poor lead up I was actually pretty confident about the race, much more so than last year. Not being able to think about it turned out to be the perfect antidote to my usual pre-race nerves. I had been working on a big freelance job as well as my main full time job since May, and to say it went badly was an understatement; averaging 3 hours sleep a night I ended up in A&E with a chest infection and nearly had a nervous breakdown. A few weeks out I emailed Cat to say that I didn’t think I should do the race – I couldn’t run at all, I was exhausted, gasping for breath like a 60-a-day smoker and the scant few hours I did sleep were punctuated by anxiety dreams. The only thing that persuaded me not to throw the towel in was her faith in me (and her refusing to let me pull out). And besides, the 6th August was ages away yet. Sort of.

The Friday before was due to be a big day for Andy and me: the day we moved into our first house. It was meant to be the smoothest transaction possible, given that we had no chain and the owner wanted to be out by the 30th of July. Utilities were arranged, van men booked, belongings packed up, goldfish in a Tupperware – we were all systems go. Then Monday of that week our solicitors told us not to get too excited about completion happening that quickly, perhaps a 60% chance of success. Tuesday we were downgraded to almost certainly not, Wednesday was unpack your bags, you’re never moving house again. But don’t worry, the 6th August looked like a safer bet. Balls.

As our optimism about moving before Christmas/doomsday drained away faster than England’s hopes in a major football tournament I had to put all thoughts of the race out of my mind. Certainly I hadn’t had optimal training opportunities for it, and nothing to suggest that the blood sugar issues that knocked me out last time were any better – I wanted to be there anyway though, if only to crew for Cat and generally offer cake and abuse. Friday 30th came with no possibility of moving within the month, and since we’d booked the day off anyway I called up Cat and arranged to go for a trot around Richmond Park to cheer up. It was so good to catch up with her after being AWOL from the Chasers for the last two months that it was almost as a side note that I casually said I’d be free on the 6th now – immediately the words left my mouth she put the call out on the Chasers Facebook page, and within two days I had 8 offers to pace and crew and a hotel room by the start. No turning back now.

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6th August. We’re shuffling about in the main hall of St Polycarp’s School again, half past five on the Saturday morning. We’re taking advantage of the loos (actual toilets, luxury), rearranging our race vests, scanning the room for familiar faces. We’re writing inspirational messages on our arms in marker pen. Cat’s say “zebra” – zebras being famously chill animals – and “CYP” for “choose your perspective”. Mine are less philosophical – my right arm bears the legend SALT! and the left hand EAT! because I need reminding of both of those things constantly. We’re both hoping to become centurions by the end of the day. As we march towards the starting line a few yards on from the monument, we’re both yawning.

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And that’s how it starts, very little fanfare. I stick with Cat for less than half a mile before letting her streak off ahead of me, reasoning that there’ll be plenty of people to chat to. My strategy is clear: manage energy. Eat early, eat little, eat often; take it easy to begin with, use the first few miles as a warm up and don’t bother running any of the hills. I set myself the target of eating around 100 calories (half a sausage roll, a gel, a handful of nuts) every half hour and taking a Saltstick capsule every hour on the hour, which is nice and easy to remember. In theory.

Being so familiar with the route now the first aid station came and went without my really being aware of it, and I started to warm up nicely. The temperature was high but not unbearable, and the lovely thing about the North Downs is that so much of it is sheltered you don’t tend to suffer too much exposure. Or at least, not before 9am you don’t. So I kept on track with my plan to drip feed myself, already feeling my stomach muscles tighten up after last night’s feast turned my waistline into something Friar Tuck would have been proud of. I judged by time rather than distance, partly because I knew my pace would vary so much in the course of the day and partly because I knew I’d need food before I got hungry, and time is a much more consistent way of measuring that.

By the time I got to Guildford I was starting to feel a rumble in my belly and the half hour interval coming up, and right on cue the bacon boat came to my rescue – a group of supporters on a narrowboat on the River Wey, moored against the trail where it leads to the bridge, offering a huge pile of cold bacon sandwiches prepared with a choice of either red sauce or brown sauce. As someone who usually likes their bacon scorching hot and burned almost to a crisp, I seriously cannot describe how good that thing tasted – I considered turning around and going back for more and the extra miles would absolutely have been worth it. It ticked the boxes for food, salt and sense of humour and I purred through the next few miles.

Three hundred runners stretch out surprisingly quickly – especially over 103 miles – and I found myself either alone or running with people not much in the mood for talking. I weaved through the familiar narrow tracks between Guildford and Dorking in my own little world, and really only looked up as we passed through the Denbies estate, the rows of vines unfurling beneath us seemingly for miles. It’s one of my favourite stretches of the North Downs – there’s just something about being on a road high up above the vineyard, a steep drop to your right like the edge of a cliff, perfectly angled to catch the warmth of the sun, that makes me feel more like I’m in the middle of the Meditteranean than Surrey. And if I could design a gradient that’s perfectly pitched for a enjoyable downhill freewheel going one way and a good climbable incline the other, it would be that hill.

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I crossed the A24 via the subway and turned back into the woods to the 24 mile aid station just before Box Hill, pausing for some amazing homemade cake and a stretch. Despite its reputation Box Hill is probably my second favourite part of the Downs – I’d much rather a good beefy climb you can really dig your heels into than a deceptive shallow incline you feel like you should run sapping your energy – and it’s also a good psychological break in the route. Once you’re past that, you’re past the worst of the climbing until night falls at least. The next point for me to look forward to would be the Reigate Hill checkpoint seven miles on, not least because my pacer for the last twenty miles, Lorraine, was volunteering there giving me a good excuse to power through the climb as quickly as possible.

By this time the sun was really starting to beat down. I was concentrating on my half hourly intake of salt sticks and food- wait, is that right? No, it’s just food every half hour and saltstick every hour, unless the food itself was salty. Come on Jaz – only a marathon in and already getting confused. Hold on, I must be more than a marathon by now. My watch was insisting on 25 miles but I’d definitely come more than a mile since the last aid station. Ah, I know what’s happened – I’ve got it on a less accurate setting so that it’ll last long enough to get me to the end, and it’s losing a few yards on every mile. I would have to check it at each aid station where I knew what the official distance was and remember to add on however many miles it was telling me if I wanted to know how far I’d come. Right, another bit of mental recalibration to do. I’m sure this’ll end well.

By the time I gave my number to the Reigate marshals at mile 31 my water bottles were bone dry and my watch was telling me I had gone 28.5 miles, and it took me a good few moments to do the maths. I sprinted over to the gazebo and gave Lorraine a big sweaty hug, ready to join the swarms of runners spread out over the grass like dead flies, but her smile immediately gave me a second wind. I was tempted to carry right on but forced myself to take a pause and a stretch, and to drink plenty of water before refilling and setting off. By this point eating was pretty low on the list of stuff I wanted to do but I knew I needed the calories, so I compromised on the heavy and hard to eat things by grabbing fistfuls of fruit as well. Watermelon and satsuma segments and pieces of banana, hell yes. Running is the rock and roll of the 21st Century.

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The next stop would be Caterham, the viewpoint another beautiful spot, with a trip through pretty Merstham on the way. Another 7 mile stretch that seemed to last for ages; there were a few hills thrown in which made time pass quickly but which also needed more calories than I was interested in taking on.Once I got to the aid station I took another pause to stretch, cool my feet off a bit and force down some food. I’d kept up my half hourly intake on the way but the amount I could eat each time was getting less and less and I took on more fruit to try to keep the nausea at bay. The next stop would be at 43 miles, on the back of another big climb, and this one wouldn’t be as much fun as Box Hill. Knowing it was coming up helped, but not by much.

As it turned out the climb was nothing compared with the half mile stretch before it. I remembered a little too late that Oxted Downs, where the Vanguard Way bisects the North Downs and the woods become overgrown farmland, are exposed and unforgiving, and as I tiptoed along the narrow singletrack I could feel my blood pressure pounding in my ears. It was so hot – not lovely Mediterranean warm, HOT. It can’t have been that long a track but it felt like it lasted forever. By the time I passed the gate to go back into the shade of the trees my head was already spinning. Just in time for the climb through the Titsey Plantation. I didn’t even have the energy to giggle at “Titsey”.

Remembering it from last year – and its many false endings – I patiently trudged upwards knowing that the 43 mile aid station would be at the top, and a chance to pause in the shade. Only seven relatively flat miles to the halfway point at Knockholt, which I mentally calculated as around an hour and a half of travel, meaning I’d only need to eat twice along the way. Yeah, maths. I grabbed a peanut butter and jam sandwich for the road and walked while I ate to save on time. This particular section includes the crossover from Surrey to Kent, where the terrain segues from woodland to farmland and goodbye tree coverage. It’s exactly when you want to come across knee-high vegetation you have you lift your feet over, a perfect time to need to look extra hard for fingerposts hidden in hedges, the ideal point to play “Find the Hidden Tractor Ruts With Your Ankles”. I don’t know if it’s coming across, but I hate this section. And with all this grumpiness to concentrate on, guess how many times I remembered to eat and drink?

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My maths failed me even more than my memory here – it took nearly two hours to make it to Knockholt including the diversion off the trail along Main Road. As I was whimpering about the pain in my feet every time they hit the tarmac and wishing for trails again, I found myself ambushed by the friendly grin of James, Cat’s other half, who gave me a hug and a boost and pointed down the road. “It’s just there, you’re so close now – Clare and Adam are there!” In my temper, I’d almost forgotten Clare would be pacing me between miles 50 and 60 and her flatmate Adam (ultra fanatic and adventure racer, a man who ran the MdS and called it “fun”) was waiting outside the village hall with his iPhone in his hand. I found a few scraps of energy to sprint up to the door and throw myself into Clare’s arm’s as Adam took photos – nope, not photos, a live video to Facebook. He asked met to say something and I literally couldn’t think of any words that weren’t wears. And you don’t swear in front of Clare. So I grinned.

Me and Clare NDW100 capture

I’d been keeping my eye on the “Toilet – y/n” column of my tracker each time I came up to an aid station expecting to need it constantly, but there just wasn’t anything there. In hindsight this should have been a warning that dehydration was already setting in but at the time my logic functions just weren’t doing what they were meant to; I mean, not laughing at rude place names should have been a warning sign in itself. So by the time I got to the Village Hall at Knockholt we were talking more syrup than juice. Adam allowed me a loo stop (although he had to send Clare in to check on me), found me some plain pasta (it took me three goes to explain that I wanted just pasta, no sauce), then told me to get going as soon as possible. I haggled myself a 25 minute break, planning to leave at 7pm, on the assumption that would be plenty of time to change and swap my drop bag over. At two minutes to, I still didn’t have my shoes back on and I’d forced down less than a handful of pasta. Valiantly lying through my teeth I insisted that I’d been eating every half hour and I was fine to get going. Lovely Lady Clare, the properest lady I know, had the good grace to humour my blatant lies and agree to a walk/trot for the first mile until we warmed up.

It didn’t take long for me to realise that there wasn’t enough in the tank for running, so we walked and gossiped. Physically I was falling apart but mentally Clare was a massive boost to me, happy to chat and gently remind me to eat every half hour as instructed. We worked out that I could walk and still make it in time so that would be my strategy until I found the strength in my legs to run again. Clare is one of those people who doesn’t have the vocabulary for negative sentiments and even when I moaned and complained like a petulant child she responded with patience and kindness. The ten miles to Wrotham would easily take three hours at this rate but Katherine would be waiting to take over, and Andy had promised to visit me there too so there was good reason to get there as soon as possible. I chewed on a pack of Doritos for a good hour (there is almost nothing on earth that would stop me eating Doritos) and Clare gave me an apple from her pack which I eked out for another hour, just about keeping my calorie deficit within manageable levels.Then, as if timed with the fall of dusk, I bonked hard in the final mile and a half to the checkpoint. Whatever I had been subsisting on up to that point ran out, and my stomach turned. I knew I needed to eat but I couldn’t face the thought of vomiting; knowing I had had the opportunity to avoid this feeling and been too afraid to take it made me feel even worse. There followed a mile and a half of me whingeing, sobbing, bitching about the road never ending, generally behaving like a toddler. Poor Clare.

The thing that frightened me most after the thought of vomiting was the thought of Andy seeing me in a state. Let’s be clear; Andy does not agree with me doing hundred milers. To be fair, his experience of them consists of rescuing me from deepest darkest Kent in the middle of the night because I’m too shredded even to speak properly, and I know he gets worried when he sees me looking like shite. We had originally agreed that he shouldn’t come at all because of the likelihood of me looking like crap and needing to get on with it regardless, but at the last moment I bottled it and asked him to pop by at an early checkpoint so I’d get the chance to see him while I was still fresh. He had plans during the day so opted to come to Wrotham instead, and double up as a lift home for Clare at the end of her stint. So he saw exactly what I didn’t want him to – me in a mess.

I was bundled into a chair when I got to Wrotham with Clare, Andy, Adam and Katherine all on hand to give me stuff. Adam, experienced in ultra running and knowing exactly how to break through a bonk, was buzzing around to keep me alert and forcing me to drink coffee. The combination of different voices and instructions only served to confuse me more, and I knew I wasn’t far from having to throw the towel in. The three runners were all keen to gee me up and get me to the next station before I was allowed to make a decision, but all I could see what Andy’s concerned face out of the corner of my eye. I avoided looking at him, pretended I wasn’t aware of his stare, but I knew whatever he was looking at wasn’t pretty. I didn’t notice how much my body temperature had fallen until I nearly dropped the cup of coffee in my right hand because it was shaking so much, so I put my extra layer on and tried to deflect probing questions from a medic who had come over to check on me. With now four voices telling me to man up and get on with it versus Andy’s one telling me I should quit, I forced myself out of the chair and back onto the trail with Katherine, reasoning at least that it would be quieter on the road, But I knew I was already spent. I quietly asked Andy to come to the next CP at Holly Hill in case I couldn’t get any further. That pretty much made the decision for me.

Having got moving again I did feel less cold and less grumpy, but still couldn’t get any food into my mouth. I probably couldn’t have planned my company better though – compared with Clare, Katherine’s approach was much more pragmatism and much less patience, and it’s exactly what I needed to keep going. I didn’t have the energy to lift my legs for running but we marched and chatted, and found ourselves in philosophical mood – I think at one point I was trying to define happiness, I can’t remember why. Something to do with Doritos probably. For her part she convinced me that we would be eaten by badgers or kidnapped by crazy people preying on vulnerable runners, both of which seemed pretty feasbile at the time.

Katherine couldn’t really understand why anyone would want to put themselves through a 100 miler, which sort of made me wonder why I had. Until that morning, I just wanted to be able to say I’d finished one; before that I’d wanted to do a qualifier to get into Western States one day. But Western States was a long way away even if I could finish this first – I was meant to be buying a house, not spending all my money on a trip halfway around the world – and so far my experience of 100 milers wasn’t even what Cat would call fun type 2; if your only reason for doing something is to be able to say you’ve done it, it’s very eas to lose the motivation to continue. Instead, it was making me confront a fear I have avoided confronting for fifteen years, and rather than deal with it properly I’d looked for diversions and tricks to get around the issue. Fitness wasn’t an issue really, even though I was a good half a stone heavier than I’d like to have been. Hydration probably had a bigger part to play than I’d like to admit but even that is fixable. I was generally injury-free; and I’d got through much worse pain than this before, and I’ve still yet to experience blisters or black toenails when running. Basically I’d been trying to conquer my fear of being sick by undertaking a huge challenge, one guaranteed side effect of which was being sick. Back to the drawing board on both of those, I think.

As we passed through Trosley County Park a runner and his pacer overtook us blithely ambling along, and said something to Katherine about getting me to Holly Hill before 1am. I’d stopped looking at my aid station tracker a long way back, and it turned out that we’d been going so slowly we were in danger of missing the cutoff for it, something which made sense when I realised they were the last runners I’d seen for hours. Even if we ran we’d be cutting it fine, and the final ascent to the CP would be a hands and knees scramble. I knew the game was up then, although to be fair the cutoff time was just the final nail in a very secure coffin. Unlike last year I wasn’t upset about pulling out, I wasn’t looking for excuses or blame, I just knew I’d had enough. When we finally made it to Holly Hill the lights were going off, the gazebo about to be packed away, and the marshals ready for bed. And there was Nelly and Andy.

There wasn’t any point in deflecting from the truth: I made a conscious decision that I would rather fail to finish than throw up, and followed it through. Until I could resolve that there wouldn’t be much point in trying to do 100 miles again. Andy concurred by forbidding me ever to try one again and we set about maing arrangements for Katherine to get back to her car and for third and fourth pacers Sydnee and Lorraine to get to theirs. I felt awful for making them come all the way to the middle of nowhere for no reason, but they were incredibly graceful about it – if there was ever a mark of just how awesome Chaser support can be that was it. We had to drive them to the 80 mile checkpoint at Detling, and by pure coincidence bumped into Cat there – she was going strong, still looking as fresh as when she’d started and downing a Thermos of tomato soup before James paced her to the end. Her resilience and her pure nails toughness made me realise I was so far away from being ready for the challenge that I stopped comparing myself to the other runners. This is a race that deserves the utmost respect, and to give it anything less is flirting with danger.

It’s an odd thing to do, endurance sport. There comes a point where the sport itself is a bit irrelevant and the endurance part becomes the real sport.In the last few weeks I’ve thought a lot about why I do it, and the fact remains that I love the challenge of endurance and I still find peace in running long distances. I have somewhat regretted my statement never to try another hundred, thinking perhaps that I should go for something in cooler season instead. Andy remains steadfast in his refusal to let me do another 100 though, so I suppose I have a much bigger challenge on my hands just in getting to the starting line. Either way, there’s no chance of me attempting this again without being 100% certain of my fitness and confident in my preparation – and most importantly, without confronting the big, vomity elephant in the room.

Talking to Alex, another 100 miler veteran, put into perspective just how silly a thing it is to be afraid of. “The thing is Jaz, it happens to everyone in a 1oo mile race. You just have to get on with it because you need to eat.” He’s right – being sick isn’t significant in the context of a race. Pulling out to avoid nausea is like pulling out because you’re afraid of getting a blister, or because you don’t like the taste of electrolyte drinks. Unavoidable and fundamentally unimportant parts of the ultrarunning experience.

At least, that’s what I have to convince myself if I’m ever going to get further than 66 miles. If I’m going to do it, I have to make the decision not to be afraid and there’s nothing more to it than that. That’s 100 milers in a nutshell, isn’t it?

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London Marathon 2016

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Nothing can prepare you for it. There are no words to describe the crushing blows of sound coming from the crowds, the pressing mass of bodies moving around you, pushing you always forward, though the twenty six mile tunnel lined by impenetrable, unscalable walls. Even if you wanted to bail out you couldn’t. The only way out is at the end. So, get to the end.

I don’t have a great track record with crowds. I’m definitely better than I used to be, better than when I wrote about zombies, but given the choice between open trails and thronged city streets… well, the road shoes aren’t getting much wear. So why am I doing this? In the days after the race I’m amused by how many people – even those who know me and how many marathons or ultras I’ve done before – want to hear all about it, much more than my previous races, as if it’s a league apart from any other marathon in difficulty or involvement. It’s just another road marathon, in theory. Except it’s not; it’s a national event, a city-wide gala, the zenith of many running careers. Despite the ever-lengthening odds of your average Joe actually getting a place on the starting line London is often either their first or last marathon (or both). Especially to someone living in London, it’s a tangible, real thing, not just a thing that happens somewhere else and well done. On a year that will celebrate the millionth finisher, how many Londoners have either run it or know someone who has? Just for one day, they’re all a little bit of a celebrity.

And there I am, as far away from a natural celebrity as it’s possible to be.

About a week before clubmate Cat admitted she was planning to take it easy at London because she was targeting a podium finish at the Pembrokeshire CTS Marathon the following weekend (as you do), and luckily for me her easy pace is my balls out PB pace, so I had myself a companion. We ran to ExCel on the Friday to traipse around the expo and buy tat we didn’t need, and to talk tactics. Broadly speaking, ‘tactics’ involved me wavering between 3:45 for another good for age qualifier and trying to persuade myself maybe I could do 3:30 after all, followed by Cat firmly and sensibly insisting that a) she can’t afford to do that and b) I probably can’t either. So, I picked up a 3:40 pacing band, then a 3:35 one for good luck as well, then my body weight in Clif products. I’d been marauding around looking for a pair of pink running shorts (because it’s the only obscene colour I don’t own) and maintaining that I’d NEVER wear tights or capri pants for running; meanwhile, half an hour later, there I am carrying away one pair of grey patterned capri pants and zero shorts or pink things. Cat would have her work cut out for her.

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Despite there being another huge Chaser turnout I travelled to Maze Hill alone on Sunday morning intending to meet Cat and the others there. It wasn’t so much me being unsociable, although I do like a bit of alone time before a race; I just like to get to the race start two hours in advance, partly to be prepared but mostly to avoid the busy trains. By 8am I was mooching around the Green Start, trying not to bump into Kelly Holmes while glued to my phone looking for a message from Cat; fast forward an hour and a half, and as the announcer made increasingly hysterical pleas for the runners to drop off their bags there was still no sign of her or any of the Chasers. I had to hand my bag in, phone and all, and hope we’d spot each other at the starting pens. Literally minutes before we were due to line up the familiar blue and green stripes flashed by and I found Cat, Korkoi, Kate and Shermayne haggling with the marshals at the pens, hoping to be allowed to start together. Panic over. For now.

Which pen should I be in anyway – what was I realistically aiming for? Only the night before the expo I discovered that my result in Manchester 2015, the result that gave me the Good For Age entry to London in the first place, was now null and void thanks to a man with a dodgy measuring wheel. It was irritating enough to have put so much work in, got my qualifying time for two Londons and then have it taken away; I can’t imagine how infuriating it must be to those who got a significant result, a podium or a PB to retire on. Up to that point I had been realistic about how well a winter of no speed training and a stone gained in weight could actually prepare me; now of course I would have to try and requalify if I ever wanted to run London again. I can’t raise £2000 for a charity place and the ballot entry odds aren’t even as good as the lottery any more. So, do I accept this is probably my first and last opportunity to run London and just enjoy it, knowing that I’ve much bigger fish to fry between now and September? Or do I go for suicide pace and bugger the consequences?

In retrospect, I massively underestimated just how busy it was going to be; not helped by the fact that we were in the relatively quiet Green Start, and not actually catching up with the crowds until a few miles in. We crossed the line – Cat in her usual gentle forefoot trot, me skipping along with Andrew W.K. party moves – only a minute or so after 10am and filtered through the peaceful streets of Greenwich, jostling and being jostled as you do at the beginning of a race. It made me uneasy as it usually does, but I kept telling myself it’d be fine when we crowds thinned out. To Cat’s credit, every time I said so out loud she corrected me – “Jaz, this is London, it’s not going to get any less busy” – and yet somehow I managed to gloss over this crucial piece of advice every time… until, that is, we merged with the other two start pens. As we came down the slope to river’s edge around Charlton a tidal wave of runners met us from one side and the volume of people more than doubled in an instant. It looked like the scene in the Lion King where Simba sees his father crushed by a stampede of wildebeests. I’m not going to get too crude about it, but I’m pretty sure this was around the time my nausea kicked in.

Like the country mice visiting the town mice Cat and I lifted our chins as gracefully as we could, thinking about the trails and pretending we weren’t inches away from other people’s sweat. We chatted about the weather, about other people, about the finer points of existence – we might as well have been two old ladies taking afternoon tea at the Penrith Tea Rooms. The crowd was carrying us along at slightly above our target pace but if we didn’t want to cause a pile-up there wasn’t much we could do about it; there was no moving out to one side or slowing down and allowing others to pass. Every time someone brushed my arm it made me bristle a shudder a little more though, and it was getting pretty difficult to hide. Every half a mile or so we’d both look at our watches, cheerfully announce we were going too fast and should probably slow down, then carry on regardless. Some serious classic British stiff upper lip denial going on.

I had started the race with half a bottle of Lucozade in my hand intending to throw it somewhere convenient within a mile – at Bermondsey I’m still clinging to it like a Linus blanket when I hear my name called off to the left. We’d just settled into a comfortable stride in a relatively quiet stretch, and perfect timing it was too; fellow QPR fan Cez was waving frantically while Loft For Words’ Neil, positioned a little further along with his ubiquitous camera, was snapping away. I’ve spent a lot of Saturdays in the pub with Neil and his camera and I’m always impressed by how he manages to catch a perfect moment. It wasn’t so much that I hadn’t been enjoying myself before, but I felt such a rush of relief to see them both it was impossible to hide and his lens picked up the very instant a grin blossomed across my already sweaty, salty face. There was the boost to get me to Tower Bridge.

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(C) Neil Dejyothin 2016 – http://www.neildejyothin.com

Cat warned me that Tower Bridge can be a particularly emotional moment; I wasn’t that convinced to be honest, especially as I run across it quite a lot in my usual Friday lunchtime loop around work. As lovely a sight as it is it’s also normally a nasty congestion point, trying to weave through the narrow walkways past people with no haste and no idea where they are, and I can’t really settle down until I’m past it. Today it was a whole different place altogether. Today we were running along the road, the two narrow walkways crammed with spectators screaming and raising a right ruckus around us. The sound swelled and burst through those iconic tower supports, washing over us and pouring into the tide of the Thames below, and for the first (although not last) time I burst into tears. Ah. So this is what everyone was trying to tell me about.

OK, so yeah. That redefines special. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I’ve certainly never felt anything like it.  And it set a tone for much of the next four or five miles – the route flanked by two walls of noise, surging and rushing over us. Cat ran slightly ahead of me through the Isle of Dogs and Poplar, which suited me absolutely fine. I couldn’t concentrate on where I was putting my feet or the path ahead of me – I just had to follow her ankles and not look up at all the people. Every half a mile or so the overwhelming noise would hit me again and knock me literally breathless; I would clamp my hands over my ears and catch my breath in sobs until it passed. At least twice I actually blacked out briefly, and when the cloud cleared from my eyes I found myself back in a relatively quiet stretch with no recollection of how we got there. And absolutely no way out except forward.

I had arranged for Andy and his family to be stationed along this stretch just after Tower Bridge as it meant that I would see them twice when the route doubled back. It was a great idea in theory, even though I knew it would be a popular spot for exactly this reason, but as usual I had underestimated just how busy it was and therefore how hard it would be to spot them. I ran for a good three miles, scanning the crowd for a glimpse of him or the QPR flag he said he’d be waving, and being horribly antisocial to Cat all the while. Every step I took without seeing him thumped me in the chest. Maybe he’s a bit further down… maybe he couldn’t find a spot there.. maybe they misunderstood… maybe not. It’s silly really, since he’s never at my races, but this one was the one he’d always said he’d be there for, and the one time I knew I’d really need to see him. Eventually, I had to concede defeat and hope we’d catch each other on the return journey. Cat reassured me that he must have been there, he would have seen me – it’s just that I couldn’t see him in the crowd. I knew it was true, but it didn’t make me feel much better. If I had been monitoring my heartrate I’m sure it would have registered such dramatic peaks and troughs as to make an ECG look like a seismograph.

As industrial East London unfolded and everything started looking like the road to the ExCel centre, another familiar sight appeared. Katherine French, stalwart of the road marathon and secret trail fanatic was just a few yards ahead accompanied by her pacer Chris. Aiming for a safe Boston Qualifier time of around 3:30, Katherine and Chris had passed us a long way back as the three groups merged way back in Woolwich and Katherine had the look of a determined lady; by now though she was struggling, stopping to walk and looking downcast. It broke my heart to see her in trouble – I wanted to stop and run with her for a bit, but she had one of the best pacers money (or rather, love and wine) could buy with her already and the last thing she would have wanted was more fuss. Seeing someone else that I admire so much having a crap time just added to the feeling that this just wasn’t fun. I missed the mud and the jelly babies and even though they were right there with me, I missed my friends.

By this point we’re deep in DLR territory and approaching three quarters of the way through. I kept telling myself that next time we passed a fuel station I would pick up a gel or a Lucozade, but by mile 20 I hadn’t managed to do either, whether because I simply couldn’t get to the edge of the pack to reach or because I was afraid of getting tripped up. My stomach was starting to cramp, looking for calories to process which I hadn’t been able to take on, and although I wasn’t feeling tired or sluggish at all I could feel my body crying at me to slow down until the nausea passed. I persisted with the logic that the quicker I went the sooner I’d get to a quiet fuel station, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. We were a good couple of miles past the last gel station before I realised I had missed my last chance. Time had to go out of the window now.

As we approached Shadwell on the return journey I kept my eyes peeled for Andy – surely I couldn’t miss him twice? I was starting to panic now, although I don’t know why I’d suddenly decided that seeing Andy for a brief moment was more likely to get me to the end than having the patient, tireless and graceful Cat by my side the entire time had been. Cat who never once complained about my being distant and unsociable, about the burden of my reliance on her, about the fact that our pace had started to slow and our muscles in danger of cooling. She was a rock all the way through, but she had her own race to think about a week later. She let me drift off to the side of the pack while I scanned every face in the crowd looking for Andy, and when I finally found him there was a brief shriek, a little jump, and then we were past and they long behind us, on the way to the finish. That little boost I had been looking for came and went almost without a chance to register, and the nausea that had been held at bay by the distraction of searching for him came back with a vengeance. After another mile I told her to go on without me. There was no chance of me making my time now, and no point in her risking injury.

The pressure relieved somewhat I trotted along under the underpass, by Blackfriars bridge and along the Embankment where I had run hundreds of times before. Every time I do this route with work I imagine being on the road, running the last few miles to the finish at the Mall; now I was on the other side, wishing I was back on the pavement. I was doing the classic juggling act: walking as much as I could to avoid being sick until the encouragement from onlookers embarrassed me enough to try and trot again, then slowing back down to a walk when I was safely past. I didn’t care about time any more, and I knew I’d still be able to take away the fact that I’d finally finished my first London. I had the support of my club and my family and I had my health, and that was that. It’s not meant to be easy, but as everyone had tried to tell me it does remind you of the goodwill of strangers – never mind my fear of crowds it’s not as if they were malicious or threatening mobs, just a lot of people who had all given up their day to tell total strangers that they believed in them. That’s why it’s different from other marathons, I suppose. Maybe, twitchy little misanthrope that I am, it’s just not for me.

No longer worrying about time I tried to help a couple of other runners who had slowed down, but who looked like they still had a final push left within them – it didn’t seem fair to be overtaking anyone at this stage when I had given up so long ago. The final mile leading to the Mall was a reflective one, but an awesome spectacle nonetheless. This bit I wouldn’t give up for the world – with one last burst of energy I leapt hurdle style over the finish line, stumbled into the marshals holding out medals, and burst into tears. While I waited for my chest to loosen up and my breathing to settle I turned around to watch the finishers behind me coming through, hoping to see Katherine and Chris among them. Those waves of triumph and pain coming through the final arch are what defines any marathon, and it was worth scanning all those faces to pick Katherine out. Seeing her finish represented to me a symbol of strength, of someone who regularly sets themselves standards so high that most people would baulk at attempting let alone be disappointed not to reach them. They came through a few minutes later, both looking calm and composed in comparison to my snot and sobs, and we exchanged sweaty hugs. I was done. We were done.

My mum had been hoping to catch me at the end after her volunteering shift but couldn’t get through the crowds in time, so I met Andy and his family at the meeting point and we went straight back to Earlsfield. Running for nearly four hours on no calories had taken its toll on my complexion and apparently I was looking grey and slurring, a real poster girl for the virtues of exercise, so we hobbled off to a local pub for a full Sunday lunch which I barely touched, although a couple of virgin coladas went down a treat. If that had been the only evidence of the effect of a marathon on the human body I wouldn’t have blamed them for never wanting to try it for themselves but just a couple of weeks later Andy’s sister Emma was asking my advice on shoes and how to train for the Brighton half and parkrun and all sorts. That’s exactly what I’d hope someone would take away from my grey pallor and limp and hypoglycaemia and shivers. It’s fun, but it’s not what you think I mean by fun. And everybody should try it.

It’s not the sort of fun that’s fun while you’re having it, transient fun that exists while it’s happening and disappears into the ether as soon as it’s finished, an unsatisfying and impermanent sort of fun. Cat calls it fun type 2: the afterburn of fun; fun that is had not at the time necessarily but after the hard work and stress has been experienced, and which lasts for weeks afterwards, in the form of memories and a sense of achievement and a change in your outlook. I’ve still never quite managed to articulate the answer to the question “why do you do this” but that’s fairly close. And, you know, the goody bags and the bling make up for it all.

I can tell you probably don’t believe me. I wouldn’t either. All I can say is, try it for yourself and see.

Funky graphs and stats below (I couldn’t resist):

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PS: If you like reading, or running, or reading about running, then you should follow Katherine’s blog girlrunningcrazy.com – winner of Best Running Blog at the Trespass Blog Awards 2015. Hell yes.

Moonlight Challenge 2016 – third time lucky?

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Before I went into this race I had done – if you include each marathon length leg of multi-day events – 24 marathons or ultramarathons, most of which over the space of eighteen months. Not many of those are races I’ve done more than once; not a huge surprise considering the range of events available to the marathoner of 2016, but still an important point to me. I’m not, nor am ever likely to be, a racer in the sense of competing for a time, so returning to a course in search of a PB is pretty low on the criteria when looking for a race. As important figures as they are to athletics, Paula Radcliffe, Haile Gebreselassie and Mo Farah aren’t such heroes to me as the stoic, battle-scarred members of the 100 Marathon Club; the people who ran marathons for fun 30 years ago and who still run them every weekend. Gina Little is to me what rockstars are to teenage girls, although I’m pretty sure I’m never going to get my hands on a poster of her.

The Moonlight Challenge represents to me very much the kind of runner I think – I have discovered, over the last eighteen months – that I am. A lap race that will reward you with a time and a distance regardless of how much you do but never honours winners, this would be my third attempt at finishing all five laps. I originally found it when I was looking for an ultramarathon to complete before my thirtieth birthday, and relying entirely on timing and accessibility from my home without taking into account the course, its inherent challenges or the history behind it. I got to marathon distance on the last two attempts and called it quits there, and for the third time I’m coming back with the idea of finishing it. And still, this is one I think I will be doing over and over again, regardless of whether I ever do finish it.

The race – regular readers will know – consists of a 6.55 mile lap around two farms in north Kent, very close to the coast and a light year away from any public transport, run up to five times to make 33 miles in total. Father of ultrarunning (to me, anyway) Mike Inkster runs the event with help from friends, family, and the hardy souls from Thanet Roadrunners, and also hosts the 24 Hour Challenge and the 50 Mile Challenge on the same course. It’s difficult to explain what it is about this race that keeps drawing me back. It’s not breathtaking views necessarily, partly because it takes place overnight and partly because there’s only so much Kent countryside you can get excited about. The lap repeats are mentally challenging, but there aren’t any killer hills, suicidal terrain or obstacles to conquer on the course. You won’t get much kudos from your workmates because it’s not well known enough for them to be able to quantify what you’ve done, and even seasoned ultra and trail runners will wonder what’s so remarkable about  33 miles in the mud, in the dark, beside a motorway. For the third time now my vocabulary has fallen short of the descriptive powers needed to explain this race. I just know it’s the one I know will always be in my calendar, come what may.

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The first time I attempted it poor preparation, lack of experience or trail shoes (or fitness) and a total failure to appreciate its difficulty were what eventually did me in, four laps and a marathon distance in. It stood as only my second ever marathon, first ever trail or overnight run, and the first time I ever even saw gaiters (now a staple of my trail running kit). It was also a year of particularly bad flooding in the area and the mud was halfway up my calves in many places. During that six hours and forty five minutes I learned how important it was to have lugs on your shoes, how moving faster means less likelihood of sinking into the porridgey mud, how far you can subsist on just a fragment of human interaction (for which read: conversation is better than headphones) and how little that timing actually matters when you get down to it. I also learned that however many excuses you find for giving up, ultimately, the only force that made you give up was you.

The second time I was around a stone and a half lighter, much fitter and seven marathons more experienced. I had trail shoes, determination and thighs of steel; what I didn’t have, however, was a headtorch. After just two laps I bottled it, and was on the point of packing it in altogether when another runner kindly offered me their spare. Nonetheless the loaner torch only got me round two more laps of an uncharacteristically moonless night and thick fog, and my nerves overpowered my legs. If I ever wanted to finish all five laps I’d have to come back for another go.

So this was it – attempt number three. Supposed to be lucky, although I’m long past relying on good luck charms and superstition. It was me that chose to quit a race I was perfectly fit and able to complete, it was my brain that short circuited in the face of profound darkness and hallucinations, and it would be my brain and my body that would get me to the end when – not if, when – I eventually did. What’s more, I was more aware of my capability this time, and with such a small field there was a strong chance not just of my getting to the end, but getting there as first lady. All I had to do was all I ever do – float on.

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And then I told my body to try and follow a new, regulated training plan for the London Marathon in the hope of getting sub 3:30. Longer midweek runs, more roads, a new stressful job and less rest than I’ve ever subsisted on (with or without running in the equation). My awesome body, who just three months ago I was praising for its achievements at Druids and for the first time in thirty-one years showing a shred of appreciation for, my body was now cowed like an abused dog with its tail between its legs, accepting punishment from its odious master and still timidly wagging its tail in the hope of a pat instead of a wallop. Surprise surprise, two weeks before the race my right knee went boom and the training plan had to go in the bin.

So I’d dealt with my lack of fitness for the event, my psychological capacity, and now for the first time I was facing injury – a revolting list of excuses. There was no point in finding blame or beating myself up further though; I had to rest, give my legs as much TLC as I could afford and hope that they’d make it through. After all that, what a horribly ungrateful way to treat myself. I couldn’t even give the mangy old mutt a proper day off because of my work timetable, but I could at least treat it to a foam roller and a bath every now and again. The question was, would it be too little too late?

Uncharacteristically for me, the moment my knee went pop I let go of the anxiety about racing or winning and took a more fatalistic approach; I would crawl round the course if I had to, but anything I had no control over wasn’t worth worrying about. Then Andy reminded me of something else I relied on my right knee for, which is the two hour drive there and back. Ah. That would be a problem. I put it out of my mind to begin with, but the day drew closer and my knee showed no signs of loosening up. Stubbornly limping to the finish is one thing; driving into the central reservation of the M20 because my knee wouldn’t bend is quite another. And then 24 hours out my guardian angel swooped to the rescue in the form of Team Mum; at a loose end on a Saturday night, apparently quite happy to spend six hours sitting in a freezing cold barn in Kent, waiting to drive me home if my knee didn’t want to. What are mums for, eh?

So there we are, greeting the Challenge Hubs regulars and catching up over frozen fingers and hot coffee. It felt like a reunion, reminiscing on past challenges and filling in the gaps of the intervening year; we even bumped into one of Team Mum’s Petts Wood Runners clubmates Jerry, and took a moment to admire each other’s Dirty Girl gaiters. I was among familiars, in an environment that felt secure to me despite the Arctic winds and pitch blackness, and I couldn’t wait to get going. Then it hit me – this is why I come back to the same event every year. Bugger the result or the time; it’s more like a holiday camp than a race. OK, so the weather’s diabolical and there’s no running water and three layers still isn’t enough to ward off frostbite and you end up with either trenchfoot or blisters, but you also come back with stories, smiles, another bunch of people to look out for next year.

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In fact I was gossiping so much I almost forgot to get changed and marched out towards the start still wearing joggers and a puffer jacket. Which would have been a shame, considering the efforts I went to to make sure every single element of my outfit clashed. The first time I ran it I was in head to toe black and hoping to slink into the background, until I begrudgingly accepted a loan of Mum’s neon yellow waterproof. Now I knew the importance of being seen as well as being able to see – from a practical point of view I’d rather know passing trains, marshals and emergency services can spot me among the waist high rushes, but there’s also a huge psychological advantage to peacocking. Also, bright pink compression socks rock.

The first lap passed comfortably; not just I’m-psyching-out-the-opposition-by-pretending-to-be-comfortable, actually comfortable. Taking a nice steady pace my knee was happy, my brain was reassured by the double torch approach and my legs were raring to get out after nearly two months since my last marathon. Had I finally cracked it? I certainly wasn’t going to crack it by getting all cocky about it so I tootled along merrily, chatting to anyone who passed me and trying not to push it too hard. Six and a half miles later I pulled into the barn as the first lady to finish the first lap. Not want to lose momentum or the lovely little rhythm I’d found I made sure my number was taken, got my good luck hug from Team Mum and went straight back out. I felt absolutely in control.

Second time out and I still felt pretty comfy, possibly a little too much so: let’s not give up an easy lead simply through laziness, I thought. About halfway through I came across two members of Rebel Runners in their black and bright green vests, one of whom was the only other lady who seemed to be running in the same lap as me. Eager by now for a bit of company I chatted to her for a bit, and discovered that she had only recently begun running to raise money for charity after her son contracted leukaemia, and today would be her first ever ultra and only her third ever marathon. She had a choppy but efficient and very natural stride for someone who hadn’t been running long, and towards the end of the lap I actually began to struggle to keep up with her. Preferring the controlled approach and constantly wary of my knee I hung back, drawing into the barn only a minute or so after her. I was a little cautious of her speed and of losing position, but more than that I was actually disappointed to lose my conversation buddy.

Again I avoided seizing up by stopping only to pick up a handful of sweet treats – possibly they were fig rolls, although they could have been beer mats dipped in sugar for all I knew – went to get my good luck hug from Team Mum, and off- wait. Where was Team Mum? Not by our seats, or outside the barn by the car, or sitting at one of the picnic tables. I looked around frantically. I’m not superstitious by any stretch of the imagination, but I didn’t much like the idea of going out without my good luck hug. I turned to Julie at the registration desk to ask if she’d seen my mum – she’s as well known at Challenge Hub events now as I am, if not more so – and as she raised her head from the list of entrants to reply I spotted a familiar pair of specs and Cheshire Cat grin.

“Right. You’re working the desk now.”

“Yeah! Thought I’d help out.”

Of course you did.

During the third lap I kept an eye out for the Rebel Runners, assuming they’d be only a little ahead of me, but there was no sign. Bollocks, I thought, they must have stolen a march. Oh well, I’m not meant to be racing anyway. I plodded along carefully, humming along to myself and resisting the urge to take out the iPod. By now my legs were tiring slightly but not so much that my form was dropping – all I had to do was keep the steady pace up. Then, about halfway through, I felt an odd sensation in my right knee – not pain, there was no explosion and seizing up like last time. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it; it just felt as though my knee had started to drift away from the rest of my body, as of no longer attached but simply floating away in an ever widening orbit. A little further along the feeling had passed, but it was pretty ominous.

The sound of a familiar chatter distracted me from any knee-induced panic attacks; just over my right shoulder, trotting resolutely along, the Rebels. No wonder I couldn’t see them up ahead of me; apparently they’d taken an extended stop after the second lap to take a group photo and were just catching up. I kept up with them until the end of the third lap, the increased pace at the time shaking out the instability in my knee and we entered the barn together. Maybe the tortoise would beat the hare after all?

I took a bit of a break this time, ate a bit more sugar coated sugar, chatted to Team Mum and stretched out my thigh. I was over halfway through now and making good time – I didn’t want to ruin it for the sake of a few minutes. Even with my break I still left the barn well before the Rebels and plunged on for lap four, rejuvenated but wary. The first section of the lap was the only real mudbath, but as mudbaths go it was a doozy. The mud was sticky like clay and at the same time had the foot-sucking properties of custard. I could dip and dive through it quite happily with the enormous lugs on my Fellraisers, but it meant that the lugs remained clogged for the rest of lap since no amount of stamping would loosen them. It was so bad that one of the marshal’s cars had to be towed out with one of the tractors from the barn. But, it was perfect dodgy-knee ground.

Still way ahead of the Rebels I ploughed on, keeping as even a pace as I could manage and making the best of the fact that I didn’t need to stop. Of course it would be too good to be true. About a third of the way in my kneecap came out of orbit and fell to earth with a bang. Pain I can deal with, but as I persevered with it the joint grew stiffer and stiffer until I could barely bend it at all, and that’s kind of its main job while running. Fuck it. The last four miles had to be taken at a walk, and an increasingly slow one at that, as my body temperature dropped and squally showers closed in. Which is why you always carry an extra layer, even on a short lap.

I called Andy, looking for a bit of moral support but knowing what I’d actually get was the dose of common sense I’d need before I persuaded myself “t’is but a flesh wound” and limped on. Even so, the Rebels didn’t catch me up until about two miles to go but once they shot past me, only getting stronger by the step, I had to admit defeat. With the London Marathon only a couple of months away there was no point in hobbling around another six and half miles and inflicting further damage on the knee. I wasn’t even that angry about not finishing for the third time – I was still almost an hour ahead of the next lady to finish a marathon distance and would probably have finished five laps at the same time as the two Rebel Runners even if I’d walked the rest of the way. I just accepted my certificate with a time of 5:30 for 26.5 miles, and started planning for next year. And bless Team Mum, she didn’t even bat an eyelid.

Since then my fatalistic outlook has taken something of a blow; nearly a month on, and I’m still gingerly trotting a maximum of ten miles on hard ground before that orbit feeling comes back and I need to rest again. I’ve put on about half a stone too because my appetite isn’t quite in step with my decreased activity levels yet. This is the bit I don’t find it so easy to talk about. Recovering from injury – especially a less serious one like this, one that came from overuse and can only be cured by rest – you can learn about from any number of sports science books, blogs and personal accounts, copies of Runner’s World, or better still with help from a professional physio. The psychological effects however, though more commonly confronted now than they ever used to be, are complex, varied and unique. Cross-training, keeping in touch with clubmates and getting involved in a non-running capacity all help keep me feeling in touch; the problem is I’ve started to reject this friendly interaction simply because I’m so pissed off with myself, which turns to envy and self-loathing, which festers and chafes and frets away at my self-esteem – what’s more, without the streak to keep up I’m at a loss for motivation to run even if I wasn’t crocked. I mean, it’s such a dumbass way to get injured. Every running magazine I have has an article on how to avoid injury and every single one – Every. Single. One. – says don’t increase intensity and mileage at the same time, or do one or the other too quickly. Basically, trying too hard to take control brought back that most classic of neuroses; my fear of losing control.

So I’ve had nearly a month to chew it over – in other words, nearly a month to procrastinate, to put off writing up this report, to rest and eat instead of refuel – and finally I’ve worked out what to take away from the experience. Feeling in control is so much more than the sum of its parts. It’s less to do with keeping my calorific intake regulated by attuning myself to the sensations of hunger and fullness, and more to do with not caring so much about the numbers that I feel compelled to cheat them. It’s less to do with rigidly following a training plan come what may and more to do with trusting your physiological responses. It’s less about doing what you’re told you ought to and more about doing what you feel is right. Because none of this is news to me; I got this far by listening to my body and never put a foot wrong. My body, which never let me down before, still hasn’t.

On a more positive note, the experience also gave me the vocabulary to really explain why I come back to the Challenge Hub races time and time again. You could point to the fact that there’s often a small field and no pressure, to the reasonable priced entry, unique challenges and friendly faces, but above all the familiarity of them has become a form of meditation to me. No matter where I race or what my goal is, the Moonlight Challenge represents to me now a sort of reset button. I’m ready to stop worrying about being in control, and start being in control.

Mince Pi Challenge 2015

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I feel like half the races I enter these days are called challenges rather than races. I quite like that actually; since in my case I’m not actually racing against anyone else – in this case, it turned out to be literally true – the idea that I’m putting myself through a challenge or a test seems more appropriate. A challenge suggests a race against yourself, or against a version of yourself, rather than a head to head with another runner. Or, for instance, with a large pile of mince pies.

The Mince Pi Challenge is unfortunately not a challenge to eat as many mince pies as possible – didn’t stop me trying – but is actually a 3.14 (get it?) mile lap run up to 10 times around the trails of Guildford and the river Wey, crossing the North Downs Way trail and taking in some lovely runnable inclines plus one bastard steep, practically sheer 180 foot high sand dune. The start and finish point in Shalford Park gave runners the opportunity to decide to go for one more or call it quits at the end of each lap, and pick up much needed fuel in the form of Celebrations chocolates and mince pies. Rude not to. All we were missing was sherry.

We had taken a group of Chasers to the inaugural event the year before and dominated, getting fastest times for 5, 6, 7 and 10 laps – this time, we were back to defend our titles and hopefully pick up a few more on the way. Somewhere between trail running and cross country, the event lends itself well to team competition; at the same time, much like the Challenge Hub Moonlight Challenge and 50 Mile Challenge, there’s no obligation to aim for a specific distance so runners can finish as much or as little as they feel able to and still get an official time. There were many runners lining up for a single post-Christmas lap at pace, others looking for distance to test themselves on, many just there to enjoy a crisp winter’s day of running in the beautiful Surrey countryside.

The previous year I had only been able to fit in 4 laps before dashing off to a QPR game, but this year the race fell on a Sunday without a game and represented my December marathon in my marathon-a-month challenge, so I would have to do at least 9 laps to achieve that. I was actually aiming for 10, knowing that only a few people would even try it and for the satisfaction of finishing the whole course, but I knew I had to be prepared for the fact that my weary legs would only carry me so far, and that risking a DNF and ruining my own challenge was worse than playing it safe.

FullSizeRender (5)We started off in a group which quickly thinned out as those planning to run it hard took off. I tried to keep up with Cat and Lorraine for a while but I knew I wouldn’t be able to match them for pace even if I wasn’t going for the full distance, so I let them go ahead and trotted along. I remembered the sand dune in the middle from last time – with very little purchase and being so steep it really is a climb more than a walkable hill – but strangely I was actually looking forward to it even a few laps in. Somehow, it was much more satisfying to climb and psychologically less demanding than some of the more gradual slopes, since all you could do was dig in and go for it. Better still, once you reached the top you were greeted by the beautiful ruins of a medieval church, and a glorious vista across the Surrey hills. And then, my favourite thing – a downhill you need a parachute for, straight down to the river.

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The rest of the course takes in much of the riverside, needing some careful footing along the boggy embankments but underscored by the peaceful sway of the water, only occasionally broken by the swish of oars from the local rowing club. It’s also a popular route for Sunday morning dogwalkers, cyclists and kids trying out their new scooters, all friendly faces that were happy to share the morning with us. My legs were already pretty leaden by about halfway, but I plugged on, smile pinned to my face, enjoying the soundtrack of the countryside.

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Chasers trail queen Cat had the 10 lap title from last year as the only person to finish the whole course, but was coming back from a double whammy of injury and illness this time and wouldn’t be able to defend it. Most of the Chasers were going for 5, 6 or 7 laps and then planning to settle into the Weyside pub, which has a veranda looking out over the river about half a mile from the end of the lap, where they could cheer on other runners. Lorraine stayed back to cheer me through lap 4 even though she had finished almost an hour before but eventually had to get into the warm, and so being on my own for most of the race I didn’t really think too much about my time or my placing until after my stomach told me it was lunchtime.

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As I got to the end of lap 7 I asked the RD how many people were left running. Only four, it turned out – and of those, only me and one other were going for the full 10 laps, and I was just in front. Even though I was struggling by now, I had to power on and try not to be distracted by the temptation to race; another mince pie down the gullet and I pushed on. As I turned right to take up the trail again, I looked behind me and saw Melissa, the other 10 lap runner, gaining on me. By the middle of lap 8 she caught me up, passed me comfortably and took off like a rocket. She was still bright and smiley, gaining in strength and going for it. Happy as I was for her I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed, until I remembered that I didn’t even know I was in front for 8 laps – today was a challenge, not a race, I reminded myself. Always forward.

Moving forward on the flat was getting hard enough now, let alone the climbs, that once I started lap 9 I realised I had to decide whether to continue with all 10 or call it a day. Melissa was so far in front of me by now that she ended up finishing all 10 laps before I finished my 9, so strong was her finish. Partly because I had to concede that I didn’t have it in me, partly because I was conscious of being the only person left on the course and partly (although I hate to admit it) because it meant I was technically the fastest person over 9 laps, I finished the last 3.14 miles with a leap over the finish line, flanked by Chasers and full of mince pies. Just over 28 miles in 05:46:52 is not going to win me any medals but there’s nothing quite like the challenge of a lap race, where there’s so much temptation to give in and only the reward of knowing you did your best.

Which, in a funny sort of way, mirrored my own year-long challenge – not to win every single marathon I ran or even to improve my time, but to learn my limits and how much I could push them, and more importantly, when not to. I’d much rather be the sort of runner that can still grind out long distances with a soppy grin on my face when I’m seventy than go for broke in every race and trash my knees, and I’d much rather be eating mince pies and chocolates than energy gels along the way too. Stretching the definition of an athlete I might be, but you’ll never take away that memory of seeing my clubmates run across the line with me, the only remaining runner in a race that just 100 people started, which I entered just because the medal is shaped like a pie.

I have a feeling we’ll be back again next year.

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